Young Woman with a Water Pitcher: A Virtual Reconstruction

(part one)

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, Johannes Vermeer Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662 - 1665
Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 40.6 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the early and mid 1660s, Vermeer painted a group of closely related work which the art historian Lawrence Gowing called the "pearl pictures" (see box below) in honor of their exquisite facture and for the fact that each work features a pearl necklace. In these compositions the artist made a decisive move away from the cubical interior spaces, which he and De Hooch had brought to near formal perfection, and "adopted an approach that in some respects was closer to that of the Leiden artists Metsu and Frans van Mieris. The preoccupation with linear perspective and geometric order diminished in favor of simpler compositions, in which the view is usually brought closer, only one figure is depicted and the behavior of light becomes the predominant aesthetic concern."1

The importance given by Vermeer to the planimetric organization of these pictures can be deduced by the numerous compositional alterations which were made in the course of the painting process, some of which have been revealed with the aid of with modern scientific instrument. Such changes are clearly seen in a group of infrared reflectograms2 of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, so much, that Vermeer's initial composition can be reconstructed with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Aim of the Virtual Reconstruction

The aim of the virtual reconstruction of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, is not to provide an accurate image of the painting as it once actually appeared, which is obviously impossible, but rather, to form a reasonable hypothesis of the artist's original pictorial concept and, perhaps, reveal why he made the subsequent alterations.

Technical analysis reveals that the background wall map of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher originally extended to the left behind the woman. In addition, the back of a chair set on an angle was placed in the left foreground and partly overlapped the window. The chair, the use of an open window as a repoussoir device and the bright, local coloring are consistent with Vermeer's style in works dating from the early 1660s.

The changes in Vermeer's composition may have been made during the early phases of the painting procedure,3 called underpainting, before color and detail had been introduced even though the some parts foreground chair seem to have been brought to a high degree of finish. It appears that some light dots of light paint, perhaps Vermeer's characteristic pointillés,4 can be made out along the uppermost profile of one of the chair's lion-head finial. In the simplest terms, an underpainting is a monochrome version of a painting (usually executed with brown or neutral gray paint) in which the artist fixes on his canvas the fundamental elements of composition, creates volume and distributes darks and lights in order to produce an overall effect of illumination. The underpainting allows the painter to envision his pictorial idea with a minimum expenditure of time and effort while maintaining control over pictorial unity, one of the principal requisites Baroque painting. The parts of the underpainting that did not live up to the artist's expectations could be immediately observed and corrected with relative ease before moving on to complex problems of color and fine detail.

The present reconstruction of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is based primarily upon a group of infrared reflectograms of the painting and Arthur K. Wheelock 's analysis of the technique and expressive content of the work as they relate to the compositional alterations.5 By comparing the reconstructed versions to the final version which we now see (part two), we might be able to intuit how the artist "thought through" his pictures and make a few observations as to why Vermeer revised his initial pictorial concept so profoundly.

Changes in Composition

As stated before, during the course of his work, Vermeer made two very significant compositional modifications in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Firstly, the background map of the Seventeen Provinces of Netherlands,6 which was initially extended behind the young girl's head, was moved to the right. The original position of its left-hand contour can be perceived with the naked eye as a barely perceptible shift in tone of the wall slightly to the left of the figure's head. This shift in tone is not always visible in reproductions but is apparent when viewing the actual canvas. The second alteration was the removal of a so-called Spanish chair with lion-head finials, a familiar prop in Vermeer's and Dutch interiors, from the left-hand foreground. The reflectograms also show that the artist had initially depicted the contours of the water basin differently. These last alterations are not accounted for in the reconstruction.

maps

Above is a detail of Vermeer's map as it appears today. To the right is a scaled image of Hyuck Allart's original map on which Vermeer's painted map is based. The section of Allart's map which corresponds to the Vermeer's map is rendered in lighter shades of gray. If the two scaled maps are superimposed, the fit is quite close.

It is generally held that the Vermeer adhered to the true shape dimensions of the real objects that he pictured in his interiors. As the art historian James Welu has shown, in several cases it has been possible to identify not just the map's designers and publishers, but the specific editions. Not only can the book studied by Vermeer's Astronomer be recognized; the very page at which it is open is legible. The local colors of the objects, instead, are more difficult to judge since the objects habitually represented in Dutch painting, like carpets and clothing, were produced in a variety of colors and furthermore, the pigments are know to have deteriorated and changed color.

As with other maps in Vermeer’s paintings (The Lute Player and the Art of Painting) the topographical features and the decorative embellishments of the map of the Young Woman Holding a Pitcher correspond very closely to those of the know map on which Vermeer’s rendering is based. Moreover, painters were dramatically limited in their choice of pigments. Only a handful of the so-called "bright colors" were available in the 17th century.

Virtual reconstruction of Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
(a virtual reconstruction, first hypothesis)

Click here to view a larger image.

The present virtual reconstruction is based partly upon the assumption that while Vermeer later changed the position of the map, he maintained in tact both its original dimensions and the height at which it is hung. In the final version the artist slid, so to speak, the map rightwards until its left-hand vertical contour and rolin ball7 became visible to the right of the figure’s linen headdress.

As can be noted in the virtual reconstruction, the entire width Allart's map, including the right-hand rolin ball, would have been represented within the perimeters of Vermeer's canvas.

Unfortunately, with the painting in question it is not possible to verify the accuracy of the map’s dimensions in respects to those of the real 17th-century map through a technique noted as "reverse geometry," used by Philip Steadman to reconstruct a number of Vermeer's interiors. Nonetheless, the London architect and author of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, demonstrated that it is not just the geographical detail of the maps and the decorative detail of the chairs that are so precisely represented; their overall dimensions also correspond closely to the originals. In effect, their reconstructed heights and widths are, in all those cases where measurement is possible, within a few per cent of the surviving library copies. It would, therefore, be fairly safe to say the map is portrayed in the Young Woman Holding a Water Pitcher is portrayed according to its original dimensions and would not likely have been resized to obtain some aesthetic advantage or iconographic nuance.

However, in the case that Vermeer took liberties with the dimensions of the map, such a change in scale should not come as a complete surprise since it is a well known fact that Vermeer altered dimensions, sometimes greatly, of a few objects represented in his works for aesthetic or iconographic reasons. For example, the cabinet-sized painting of the Finding of Moses to the far right-hand side of the Astronomer has appears far larger when it is represented in the later Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.

The "Pearl Pictures"

In the early 1660s Vermeer executed four small canvases eloquently named the “pearl pictures” by Lawrence Gowing which are among the artist’s most lucidly conceived yet enigmatic works. For the present study, Woman Holding a Water Pitcher has been added to the group, obviously, not with the intention to revise Gowing’s well-known term, but because the painting bears important compositional affinities with the four pearl pictures: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Woman Holding a Balance, Woman with a Lute and Woman with a Pearl Necklace.

Vermeer's Pearl pictures

The subject matter of the pearl pictures is restricted to a single woman who momentarily engages in some discreet activity in a left-hand corner of a room, very near a window. While persistent iconographical interpretations seem to have successfully illuminated the story behind the Woman with a Balance, the others have resisted interpretative attempts with more success. Nonetheless, a common theme that unites the women’s activities might be thoughtful reflection (or distraction).

Four of the five pictures show a slice of a window to the left and four display chairs (a second chair once occupied the lower left-hand corner of the composition of the Woman Holding a Water Pitcher). All the scenes are staged against a simple, white-washed wall set parallel to the picture plane. The particular hue and tonal values of the white-washed walls are key to establishing the direction, intensity and quality of the incoming light and constitute an unsung technical tour de force of the artist’s oeuvre.

Even by Vermeer’s standards, the scenes of these works are organized with exceptional economy utilizing a table with a single woman, a meager still life, a few carefully chosen props, a map or painting on the background wall and one or two chairs (infrared reflectograms reveal that the original version of Woman with a Pearl Necklace once displayed a large wall map behind the standing girl). All of the movable objects are structurally simple although some are adorned with elaborate decorative elements (ex. Turkish carpets and large wall maps).

  1. Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, New York, 2001, p. 379.
  2. Infrared reflectography (IRR) is an imaging technique that is used to study the presence of specific pigments which may lie beneath visible paint layers. IRR can provide important information for art historians since changes in composition can be detected during the different phases of a painting’s execution. IRR can also detect paint losses and retouchings, sometimes invisible to the naked eye. Infrared radiation allows us to “see through” paint layers that are impenetrable to the human eye since it passes through paint until it reaches something that absorbs it, or it is reflected back to the camera. Infrared light has too long a wavelength to see, but it can however be photographed. IRR can penetrate through most thinly painted oil paints, except carbon black which was often a component of artist's materials such as graphite, charcoal and ink, during the early stages of the painting process and as an additive to darken other pigments. The resulting image, known as an infrared reflectogram, is converted digitally by software, producing a black and white image on the computer monitor. Since IRR detects black materials it is a perfect complement to X-radiography, which typically registers lighter materials, principally lead white ubiquitously employed by 17th-century European painters.
  3. Jørgen Wadum, Chief Conservator of the Mauritshuis, has kindly pointed out that we cannot know if each and every one of the altered objects that appear together in the virtual reconstructions above were ever been present at one single stage of Vermeer's work.
  4. Pointillés are globular dots of paint which were intended to imitate the so-called "disks of confusion" produced by the camera obscura image. Vermeer used pointillés extensively throughout his career to enhance the sensation of light.
  5. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer and the Art of Painting, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. 105-109..
  6. James A. Welu identified the map as one published by Hyuck Allart. The south of the map is oriented to the left. A version of the map, dated 1671 is conserved in the University Library, Leiden. Allart acquired the plates from an early 17th-century. source, added the decorative elements and reprinted it. James A. Welu, "Vermeer: His Cartographic Source", Art Bulletin 57 (December), pp. 529-547.
  7. The rolin balls which are seen in many renditions of wall maps in Dutch interior painting serve to distance the back side of the map from the surface of the walls wall in order to avoid humidity.
  8. James A. Welu, 1975 pp. 529-47.
virtual restoration

The Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands
Huyck Allart (active c. 1650-1670)
1671

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Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662 - 1665
Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 40.6 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Click here to view a larger image.
Looking Over Vermeer's Shoulder
The complete book on the technique and studio practices of Johannes Vermeer
2nd edition
eBook / PDF
+300 color illus.
Jan., 2016


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